" Toilets, toilets everywhere|full of shit and pee"
An interview with V. Ganapathi, Special Correspondent, The Hindu [retd]

A lot has been written about the achievements of tsunami rehabilitationand reconstruction work. But what is the ground reality?

In an interview V Ganapathy brings to the forefront the gruesome situation in some of the so-called tsunami settlements.


 An Interview with V Ganapathy
[Retired Special Correspondent, Hindu]

Tsunami and Sanitation

First phase - Immediate disaster relief

It is almost two and half years since the tsunami struck. After the disaster, there were around 600 NGOs from all over the world who gathered here to render relief. Most of these organizations worked in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, India. The reason was that out of the total 7300 lives lost roughly 6800 were lost in and around Nagapattinam and Velankanni.

The Central Government, State Government, NGOs, the Red Cross Society, the World Health Organization, and other international funding agencies all rushed to this place to provide aid. The amount of sympathy and eagerness they exhibited in providing relief to the people here was in itself a humane wave larger than the tsunami. This was a spontaneous global response to the disaster, and for three months, they were ready to render any sort of help and assistance to the local population.

Within the first three months of the disaster, relief camps were set up for about two lakh people. They were accommodated in public places such as schools, colleges, marriage halls, community halls etc. This was followed by the next phase of setting up temporary shelters. This was completed by the end of 2005.

Second phase - Temporary shelters

93 Temporary shelters were built. Most of these shelters were built near the sea-shore, very close to the places where the people were residing earlier. Building these temporary shelters all along the coastline right from Chennai to the southern tip of India (Kanyakumari) was a challenging task.

You must understand that the disaster struck places within one or two kilometers from the beach the most. These areas were the worst affected. Then, the zone consisting of the next two to three kilometers was also affected. These are the places where farming and prawn culture activities were undertaken by fisher folk.

But today if one was to visit the area (which is) five to six kilometers inland from the beach it would be difficult to make out that a major disaster had struck there. Similarly if you visit Nagapattinam, and see the bus stand, you will wonder and really get puzzled as to whether this was the area that was devastated by the tsunami. The reason is that we are looking at these places after two years and seven months of the disaster.

The place where we are sitting now was inundated with the tsunami waters. By the time the water reached this place, 3000 lives were lost.

So if you visit the affected areas today, you will not be in a position to make out anything. The key affected area is one kilometer from the beach and this is where the major habitation is situated. Here the people living in temporary shelters had thought that within a year’s time (by the end of 2006), they would be re-settled in permanent houses. But this did not happen.

Third phase - Difficulties in setting up permanent shelters

These plans did not materialize for various reasons. Firstly, the life of fisher folk is completely different from the mainstream society. They are used to staying close to the sea and their culture, their habits, their profession, their routine, is all very different. The men wake up early in the morning and go for fishing at 3 am. They return only by 2 pm. After returning they take rest at home from 2-5 pm. The women carry the fish in a basket on their heads, and walk around two to five kilometers in order to sell the catch.

The fisher folk are very backward in terms of formal education. Most of the women do not even know to read and write. They do not know how to swim. Their culture and tradition prevents women from learning to swim.

Among their community it is normal for men to go fishing in the boats and defecate in the middle of the sea or on sea shore. Women folk also ease themselves in the sandy beaches. People are used to open defecation and do not have the concept of toilets.

Secondly there was a delay on the part of the government in deciding where the permanent shelters should be constructed.

As per the Coastal Regulatory Zone Policy, no construction or building activity can take place in an area up to 500 meters from the coastline. But the fisher community has been living within 50 meters from the coastline, since hundreds of years.

It became a big challenge for the government to decide on the feasibility of construction within 500 meters (against the norms). It took around nine months, for the central and state government, NGOs and the district administration to arrive at a solution to sort out the problem. They had to examine all the norms, the Supreme Court orders, the High Court orders, assess the environmental impact etc.

This process delayed the construction of permanent shelters by six to nine months. And the impact of this delay has been great. We did not realize what implications it would have. But now the situation speaks for itself.

The implications of the delay

At present, more than 50% of the affected population is still living in temporary shelters. The construction of permanent shelters is incomplete. Even where the construction has been completed, the shelters have not been allocated and occupied. Out of the total 23,000 houses to be constructed in the Nagapattinam district, only around 12,000 – 13,000 have been built.

When people were accommodated in the temporary shelters, one of the key issues was to provide them with water facility. This was done.

As far as toilets are concerned, pit-latrines were constructed in the temporary shelters. But the people hardly used them. The first reason was cultural incompatibility. They were not used to the concept of toilets. Secondly, these types of latrines created more problems instead of solving them. They did not function effectively due to the high water table in the ground.

So we constructed toilets for a population that was never accustomed to using any type of toilets and we did not construct the best type of toilets!

The people faced extreme hardships, when they were accommodated in the temporary shelters, but the key achievement is that, during the course of their stay in the temporary shelters, there was never an outbreak of infectious diseases such as Cholera or Dysentery.

Definitely this can be quoted as a major achievement. This fact has been acknowledged and appreciated at the international level also.

Flexibility in government policy for tsunami hit areas

After nine months of deliberation the government came to a decision about the location of the permanent shelters. It decided to be flexible about the enforcement of the Coastal Regulatory Zone policy, and adapt it to the local conditions. So in areas where adequate land was not available, the government decided to permit construction of permanent shelters within the prescribed 500 meter area, from the coast line. This was not a general decision for the whole coast line, but was applied only to the tsunami affected areas and the population living in these areas. This exception to the norm cannot be used in any other part of India.

This government order was specifically drawn as part of the tsunami relief. However by the time this order was released, most of the aid agencies that were working in these areas had already disbursed the funds for the construction of the permanent houses for the affected population.

Design of the new permanent shelters

In the last two to three months, we provided inputs to the government on possible designs/drawings for construction of the new houses for the tsunami affected population. We utilized the services of the best designers, engineers and architects. Based on our inputs the government finalized nine types of designs and asked the contractors to start construction as per the design specifications.

Toilets in the permanent shelters

The model designs for the permanent housing were released and toilet structures were part of the design, but there were no guidelines pertaining to disposal of waste-water, grey-water, bathing water, and sewage.

I can say with confidence, that all over the world, a majority of people do not understand the importance of the toilets, as part of the housing design. Generally only two questions are posed, what is the need for the toilet and what type of toilet is to be built.

In this case also, as per the approved designs, the construction of the toilets was the responsibility of the funding agencies or contractors, but the sewage management, waste-water treatment, water supply, construction of roads, provision of public lights, were all stated to be the responsibility of the government as part of the basic amenities for the population.

Costs associated with permanent shelters

The construction was to be done in a difficult terrain. The areas lack basic infrastructure for example, good roads. The labor costs are high and the cost of construction materials such as sand, brick, iron, cement, has also risen.

Construction as per the government recommended design (taking into account waste disposal) increased the estimated value of construction of each house from Rs.1.25 lacs to about Rs.1.75 lacs.

So, the funding agencies and contractors resorted to building toilets, inside the dwelling area of the house, and just provided an outlet pipe for waste water and fecal waste disposal in the open.

Having lost a lot of time in debating the coastal regulatory zone norms, framing guidelines for monitoring funding agencies and NGOs, the government also approved these houses without getting into many details, such as toilet design and construction.

Another contributing factor for the hasty decision to go ahead with the construction was that in the year 2005, as a result of the North-East monsoon, many temporary shelters developed leaks and got broken down. It was impossible for the people to stay safely in the temporary shelters. The shelters were inundated and surrounded with waste-water, pit-latrine waste and other liquid wastes.

In view of the deteriorating situation, in early 2006, the government started pressurizing the contractors to complete the construction of the permanent houses before the end of the year.

Construction of toilets without consultation with the community

The government did not pay attention to waste-water disposal and treatment, and did not provide guidelines for the toilet construction. Hence a majority of the 7000-8000 permanent houses constructed so far have toilets inside the dwelling area, and there is no mechanism for disposal of waste water, black water and bathing water.

90% of these houses have pit-latrine type of toilets with squat pans on raised platforms and bathing area about three inches below the toilet platform. This leads to a situation where the bathing water gets spilt into the pit-latrine and fills the latrine.

Both the bath room and the toilet are within an enclosed area. This is completely unacceptable to the fisher folk. Nobody consulted them before constructing the houses or the toilets. Even they did not bother to seek advice or ask anybody about the design of the houses.

Thus, we built toilets inside the houses and completed the construction. But there were no systems for waste-water disposal. The contractors and other agencies did not consider waste-water disposal as a priority and they all left once the construction was completed.

Problems with the permanent structures

On the one hand the contractors and agencies had spent all the allocated funds, and on the other hand, there was tremendous pressure from the government to complete construction. So the construction was done. But, in the last six months, we are seeing a new scenario.

The people living in the temporary shelters are facing lot of difficulties due to lack of toilets, lack of water and other basic amenities, and when they complain, the government is asking them to adjust with minor discomforts, and difficulties in the temporary shelters, and promising them that they will be moved to the permanent shelters soon. But even if we consider the “ready to move” permanent shelters they are far from satisfactory from the perspective of health, hygiene and sanitation.

In a way, the state of affairs in permanent shelters is much worse as compared to the temporary shelters. Apart from the waste water disposal, some people are also talking about structural defects in these houses.

People who have been allocated and have occupied the new permanent houses are not using the toilets because of the waste water disposal problem.

Several NGOs and agencies such as UNICEF, USAID have spent funds to the tune of several crores towards improvement in health and hygiene conditions (construction of toilets, water supply) in the tsunami affected areas. Many such agencies also educated the people about managing water needs, solid-waste treatment, usage of toilets, and the overall maintenance of the environment. They sensitized people on why toilets should be used, what problems arise when people do not use toilets, the advantages of using toilets, and proper usage of toilets.

But these education efforts were not enough. A majority of people especially the men continued to use the available open spaces for defecation.

Toilets - Women’s need

When people moved from the temporary shelters into the permanent houses, it was the women folk who were particularly enthusiastic and happy about the fact that they would not have to defecate in the open. They were hopeful that a new change would take place in their lives due to the toilets available in these houses.

Unfortunately, they found that the toilets in the permanent houses were not usable. So the population that had never used a toilet in their life, learnt about the need and importance of toilets, the usage and the advantages. When they desired to use one and the facility was available, they found much to their dismay and disappointment that these toilets could not be used on a regular basis because of the sewage and related problems.

We find it to be something very casual. But for the children, young girls and boys, the women and the elderly, this was a point of great disappointment and frustration. At least in the past, in the temporary shelters, they could defecate in the open spaces freely, but now in the permanent houses, there is no place to defecate, as many blocks of houses surround each individual unit.

Lack of open spaces

Rows and rows of houses have been built together as part of the permanent housing scheme. There is no open space and there is no privacy. People living in permanent houses, have to walk about half a kilometer to find open space for defecation.

Who is at fault?

What are the reasons for this plight of theirs? One reason is that we failed to provide the correct technology and suitable types of toilets for the people. The second reason is that we did not bother to build a common septic tank or use any other type of disposal technology such as Decentralized Waste Water Treatment System (DEWATS) to dispose the waste from the pit latrines.

I am not pointing out to anyone in particular, but this is the question that the tsunami affected population is asking all the involved agencies. Why has everybody failed to meet their need for toilets? They are asking us, is it their fault or ours? We have no other alternative but to hang our heads in shame in front of the fishermen and other local population. We can now only apologize openly and accept our failure.

Temporary toilets near permanent shelters

The most troubling part is that this situation continues without resolution till date. In the past, temporary toilets were built near the temporary shelters. But now, the pathetic situation is that the government and the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) have been forced to construct temporary toilets in the vicinity of the permanent houses. In Nagapattinam, in three areas, temporary toilets have been constructed.

Wherever you look in Nagapattinam, Cuddalore, Chennai, and Villupuram - in all these areas you will see a good permanent house with a toilet inside the house but no provision for disposal of the black and fecal waste water.

Situation on ground

Recently we visited some areas in the Nagapattinam district to ascertain the situation on the ground. We found that some people have started using the bathroom cum toilet inside the house, for urination. In 99% of the houses, the toilets are not being used for the purpose for which they have been constructed and in about 15-20% of the houses people are using the toilets for urination.

Problems with septic tanks

This practice is leading to another type of problem. For example in the Vannankulam area, where the Mata Amritanandamayi agency functions, they have dug small ditches in front of all the houses and the urine and liquid waste from the bathroom cum toilets in these houses, gets accumulated in the ditches. Without any disposal mechanism, it gives a foul smell and causes a stink in the entire area. A couple of months back, when it rained, all the ditches started overflowing with waste close to the houses.

In Panankudi, the scenario was different. A small septic tank has been constructed for collecting the solid and liquid waste from each house. Once the septic tank gets filled up, it starts to over-flow, and no provision has been made for the dispersion trench. Instead of the dispersion trench they have built a very small collection tank, (1.5 feet in depth and 1.5 feet in diameter).

What we observe in these areas is during the rains, the septic tank overflows and the black water forms a cesspool behind each house. This is a good breeding ground for insects, mosquitoes and flies. When there is rain, the rain water carries this waste water and filth all around the area. We are all very concerned and fear the worst health hazards in these areas, where septic tanks have been constructed.

All said and done, even after two and half years of the tsunami, we seemed to have failed to provide proper toilets for the affected population. When we visited the villages, the women expressed their anguish about the hygiene and sanitation situation and told us that they just wanted basic amenities and facilities to lead a healthy and happy life. And a proper toilet will sort their problems to a great extent.

Now, the villagers are asking very hard questions. They are really puzzled about the temporary toilets, which do not even have running water facilities. There are no taps or hand pumps in the temporary toilets.


We can redress this problem using technologies such as the De-Wats. We can also think of improvising the septic tank toilets. Another viable alternative is to look at Ecological Sanitation (ECOSAN) type of toilets. What is of utmost importance now is to find a way to solve the problem, for the approximately 10,000 houses that have already been constructed. We need to consider very seriously what the most appropriate solution would be.

From the government point of view, toilets don’t figure as a priority issue. The government’s priorities revolve around the construction of houses, provision of drinking water, economic development, livelihood and occupational training for the tsunami affected population. But unfortunately, even at the highest level, sanitation is not accorded top priority. It has now become critical to discuss this issue at the highest level and prepare an action plan for implementation.

Since this is a low priority issue for the government, even at the field level, the local authorities are only focusing on day-to-day problems. People come to the Collector’s office and complain about the lack of water facilities. In Nagapattinam, it is becoming difficult to get a pot of water even for Rs.3/- There is acute shortage of drinking water. No water is available for bathing. Added to this, they do not have toilets for attending to nature’s calls.

We talk about human development, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and such things. We also aspire to provide basic facilities to 50% of the population by the year 2015. To achieve this is no small task for a vast country like India and a huge state such as Tamil Nadu. We should first start by meeting the MDGs in the tsunami affected areas. We need to start from scratch in these places as, at present, there is nothing in sight. It is sad to note that even for such a small area we have not been able to plan well.

So, we need to treat toilets as a top priority and start looking for answers to two key questions: one, what is the waste treatment plan and technology that can be used for toilets that have already been constructed and second, what is the type/model of toilets that needs to be built in the houses that are still to be constructed. If we do not start work on this front immediately, it would lead to a grave danger.

In the first nine months after the tsunami, we did not have any major outbreak of infectious diseases. As I said earlier, we did not face mass Diarrhea or Cholera. Now people are staying in the permanent houses, and looking to the present conditions there, it is very likely that a disease outbreak may occur and the implications will be disastrous for the entire population.

Already people have started complaining that they are unable to consume food inside the house, due to the stink and filth. Most women are complaining that they are not able to sit outside the house, due to the foul smell from the ditches and septic tanks. In some of the houses, they have spent their own money and have installed hand pumps. The hand pumps are located just a few yards away from the septic tanks and ditches. These folks are complaining that the water from the hand pump is contaminated and is giving a foul smell due to the fecal and other waste water from septic tanks seeping into the ground.

In the Panankudi area, where septic tanks have been constructed, each household has spent more than Rs.600 thrice in the year for getting the septic tank cleaned. This amounts to an expenditure of about Rs.2000 within a year of moving into the permanent shelters.

There is an anganwadi and a recreation center near the permanent housing complex. Last week, when we visited the place, we saw a very strange phenomenon. In one area a beauty contest was held to judge the cleanest toilet. In Serudoor (just five kilometers away from this place), 240 houses have been constructed and allocated. On the day of the inauguration, the women started asking questions about how they could occupy a house, which did not have toilets and drinking water facility. When we moved 10 km further (Nagore), we found people complaining about the uselessness of the toilets, which have been constructed inside the new permanent shelters there.

The funny thing is that the Health Department itself has advised the people that open defecation is much better than using the toilets inside the houses.

In these circumstances, we need to think about the life of the future generations. It is possible that after ten years, Nagapattinam may develop into a rich and beautiful place. But there is also a high probability that the areas where permanent shelters have been constructed degenerate into slum areas. This is not a potential danger, but a real one. Anybody who conducts a fact-finding exercise will discover this real and important danger which is lurking. So the outside world needs to know about the present situation.

Nobody cared about the fishermen community prior to the tsunami. After the disaster, crores of rupees poured into Nagapattinam, which made people believe that life of the local people improved greatly. But we can verify the facts by visiting the permanent shelters.

We generally undertake exposure visits to review the good things. In the same way, we need to send a high level expert committee to the field to understand the problems on the ground. Of course, mistakes have been committed and I agree that “to err is human”. But this is a great challenge.

The tsunami has struck a coastline of 800 kilometers. We were successful in persuading those people to use toilets who were never accustomed to using toilets. We could not provide them appropriate toilets. But at least now, we can draw up a plan to ensure good quality of life for the coming generations. If at all tsunami has taught us something, it is the need and importance of toilets and good sanitation. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru used to say “The day I will be happy will be the day when all the people in my country have toilets for their use”. This was said three years after India gained independence. It is important for all of us to revisit this important statement. We have to take responsibility and ensure that this dream becomes fulfilled at least in the tsunami hit areas. This is my humble view.

Women have understood the importance of toilets and we are seeing a huge demand for toilets from them. Men do not realize the value because they leave early in the morning for fishing into the sea and come home late in the evening. But still men need to slowly change their old and persistent habits of urinating/defecating in the open. At the same time children need toilet training.

The government is doing a lot of work for the tsunami affected people. It has constructed roads, installed waste water treatment plants (in some areas), built houses, reading rooms, play areas for children, parks etc. But people need to learn to use these facilities effectively. To achieve this goal, it is necessary for the NGOs to motivate the local population. So motivation is the key here.

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, people needed psycho-socio counseling. This was necessary to help them recover from the shock of losing life and property.

What we see now is kind of transplantation. We are not talking about one or two households we have transplanted a population living in 300-400 houses into a new area. It will take some time for people to get accustomed and to spread their root. During this process of acclimatization, new problems and issues will crop up. The government and NGOs should be ready to face new problems. They need to initiate a dialogue and conduct awareness about waste management, garbage disposal, better usage of toilets, maintenance of common property such as public lighting and roads.

To achieve these goals it may be necessary to form local self-help groups. In all the villages where fisher folk reside, a traditional local panchayat and community leaders exist. The panchayat and the community leaders command great respect and have a following among the fisher folk.

We have to engage these local leaders and orient them. In fact wherever new permanent houses are being constructed, we need to conduct an orientation program for the people who will be living there.

Another thing is that people have been complaining that although the houses are ready, there has been delay of about a year in allocation. So they have no idea who will be allocated which house. Just three days before the occupation, somebody comes and starts reading the house numbers and the names randomly and just hands over the keys to the occupants without any prior information.

Instead of handing over the houses in this way, it would be better to announce the allocation two months in advance (prior to the completion of construction) so as to generate some interest and sense of belonging, ownership in the local population and occupants.

When we visited the Akkaraipettai and Keechankuppam villages in Nagapattinam, we found that around 150 houses have been constructed but nobody was ready to occupy the newly constructed houses.

On further probing we found that actually about 250 houses were required to accommodate everybody here but since 100 less houses were constructed people decided not to occupy the ready houses in protest. They demanded that the left over population should have houses as well.

As a result, all the newly constructed houses are presently unoccupied. There has been no maintenance of the newly constructed houses for the last six to eight months. The window panes are broken. The pathways are all rendered useless. The toilets in the houses are being used as public toilets. Many of these houses are occupied by anti-social elements.

The local community can offer assistance and cooperation to the authorities, to get rid of this menace. It is here that the NGOs have a role to play between the government and the beneficiaries. We have to conduct trainings, awareness campaigns, orientation and counseling sessions for the people who will be occupying the newly constructed houses. We have to nurture the feeling of ownership and belonging in them even before they occupy the houses. There is still time and the situation can be improved in the next six months.

The road ahead…

We must remember that we have been constantly talking about the Millennium Development Goals with milestone years as 2015 and 2025. Several programs are being drafted and implemented across several countries and continents. We have already crossed fifty years of independence and the MDG milestone years are fast approaching.

Keeping this in view, with missionary zeal we must all collectively start fulfilling this dream at least in the tsunami affected areas. It will benefit everybody immensely. Despite the fact that tsunami was a great disaster, it has taught us several lessons, and has provided us an opportunity to bring the sanitation conditions in the country to the highest standards. The tsunami has already given us the impulse for initiating social change. We can only ascertain the efficacy of this push, in the coming six months, based on our activities and initiatives in the area of sanitation and provision of water.

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